North Carolina’s Wilmington Massacre and Trump’s Insurrection Really Aren’t So Different

A mob of white supremacists murdered dozens of Black locals and ran Black leaders out of town in 1898 during the Wilmington Massacre, one of many impacts of the white supremacist campaigns in 1898. Here the mob stands outside the ruins of Wilmington's Daily Record, the only Black-owned paper in the state. (Public Domain Image)

By Billy Ball

November 10, 2021

Madmen, mobsters, and racists took North Carolina to a very dark place 123 years ago. I fear Trump-backed insurrectionists would lead us to a similar hell.

Today ought to be a national day of remembrance.

Today is the day that, 123 years ago, a mob of white supremacists in Wilmington — not satisfied with the results of a recent election — overthrew their legitimately-elected local government at gunpoint. 

Sound familiar?

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There are plenty of historical differences between the virulently racist lynch mob that seized power in Wilmington and the (often) virulently racist lynch mob that stormed the nation’s Capitol in January.

For one thing, the racists in Wilmington succeeded.

They stoked white fears of Black dominance to implant a generation of racists in local and state government. Historians estimate they killed anywhere from 60–300 Black locals in one day, a scant few of which have been identified.

Their leaders became mayors and senators and congressmen and governors. Their ascension should be sickening, not forgotten.

Graphic for Cardinal & Pine by Keith Warther

Educate Yourself About “The Education Governor”

Charles Aycock, one of the insurrection’s leaders, became known as the “education governor” in the state for his support of a strong public education system — for whites.

Check out his statue and historic birthplace, although the state’s historic sites page doesn’t bother to mention the more grotesque portion of his political career. That’s one way to avoid a frank discussion of one of the era’s most outspoken white supremacists, a political leader who stoked a violent insurrection and trumpeted the elimination of “the Negro problem” in his home state.

“We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses,” Aycock declared in an infamous speech in Fayetteville in October 1898, less than a month before their Wilmington insurrection.

Aycock’s contemporary, U.S. Congressman W.W. Kitchin, was equally vile. “Before we allow the Negroes to control this state as they do now, we will kill enough of them that there will not be enough left to bury them,” Kitchin warned. About a decade later, Kitchin was the 52nd governor of the state of North Carolina.

If the only thing you knew about Aycock was the “education governor” tripe, you should feel lied to.

Reading through the North Carolina history books for racists in our government is like moving the fridge and finding out your roach problem is a roach infestation.

These things are not relevant simply because they happened. They are relevant because they changed the way North Carolina voted at a time when newly enfranchised Black Southerners began to wield some power. 

They changed the shape of government for decades to come. They placed a state seal of approval on violent white supremacy. 

And in so many ways, they originated a pattern for terrorists who on Jan. 6 attempted to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election, and who only believe in elections that turn in their favor.

Talk About Wilmington

So if you do anything this Nov. 10, don’t just remember what happened in Wilmington 123 years ago. Talk about it. Speak about it. 

It’s been said by someone smarter than me that we can’t just teach atrocities like this as Black history because in so many ways they say a lot more about the white folks.

If you grew up in North Carolina like me, chances are you knew very little about the whole thing. 

And what you did know was a scant few details or an airbrushed version.

The massacre was not a clash between two opposing forces. It was an orchestrated ousting of interracial government in Wilmington. It impacted this state for generations to come. And its entrenchment of voter suppression and white-dominated government in North Carolina still impacts us today.

So take a look at the white supremacists who incited this horrific event and consider the power they held, the power they still hold. As NC civil rights leader William Barber II said in May, speaking then of another Black man’s police-involved shooting: “That’s too much power for a racist to hold.”

Consider the coded language of the Trump Republican Party, its race-baiting forecasts of takeover from outside forces (read: not white).

Consider the racial gerrymanders and voting law changes authored by this era’s North Carolina Republican Party. In striking them down, the courts found that the GOP, the same GOP holding the state legislature today, pored over Black voting data to cut out precisely those means of voting favored by NC’s Black residents.

In 2013. Not 1898.

And consider the Trump-backed terrorists who stormed the nation’s Capitol in January decrying a fraudulent election without a whit of half-decent evidence.

In their paranoia, their insistence that the only credible election is one they win, they mirror the white supremacists who stalked Wilmington 123 years ago today. Resemble them in so many ways it aches.

Folks on the far right don’t want us to speak about the honored, rotten dead of Wilmington’s white supremacists. But the right today often speaks in their dead voices, writes in their dead pens.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that these bands of dissidents, whipped into a fervor by mad, corrupt men, will not take the same path.

But I fear these matters aren’t settled. Not in North Carolina, not in the United States, not by a long shot.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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